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As manufacturers grow and need more skilled labor, using millennials the right way can have a significant impact on employee growth and retention.

By Ivan Seselj

Millennials – those 54 million adult Americans between 18 and 34 who now make up a third of the U.S. workforce – hold incredible potential for the manufacturing industry. Unfortunately, they could just as easily become a tremendous detriment. How so?

Let’s start with the good news. Since the end of 2010, U.S. manufacturers have experienced their most significant growth in 30 years, generating nearly three-quarters of a million new jobs. Moreover, industry experts predict that number could surpass 3 million over the next 10 years.

When you consider who would be most likely to fill those jobs, the obvious answer is millennials. Millennials don’t simply represent warm bodies who can fill newly created positions. They also have the tech know-how to understand and readily adapt to the new trends that are changing the face of manufacturing, from the application of 3-D printing and nanotechnology to big data and predictive maintenance.

So what’s not to like? While millennials represent a large, technologically adept, and readily available workforce, the downside is that millennials are sometimes characterized as lazy, entitled and high maintenance. Older workers complain that millennials whine about doing more menial work, refuse to comply with authority, and are too focused on salary and career advancement.

That last characteristic should be of particular concern to manufacturers. Data compiled by numerous organizations and think tanks indicate that younger workers are significantly more likely to jump from one job to the next than any previous generation. For manufacturers, the tendency to job hop translates into a need to retain institutional knowledge in the event key employees quit, and perhaps more importantly, a need to better understand what makes millennials tick so that they can be better leveraged.   

To address both of those needs, the first step is to prepare for the inevitable – despite your best efforts, some employees will move on. To mitigate any potential damage that could occur with the departure of key employees, it is essential to identify and document vital institutional knowledge, including key policies and practices, historical knowledge and processes for everything from strategic management to accounting, recruitment and technical support. Fortunately, today’s technology makes it easy to create, access, navigate and manage those processes that are critical to the business, enabling quality assurance, risk management and business continuity.

It is equally important to set expectations from the top with respect to retaining this institutional knowledge. Regularly communicating them to employees demonstrates that the manufacturer is serious about capturing and retaining critical process information and places a high value on its preservation.

Remember, though, that communicating such a policy, or anything for that matter, doesn’t mean sending a mass email or posting a letter on the lunchroom wall. These are millennials, who are used to using smartphones, tablets and web apps. If you want to communicate with them, do it via an app or a 30-second video.

The use of technology is key to the manufacturer’s ability to engage with millennials. Millennials hate to waste their time doing the little things that more senior employees sometimes take for granted – filling out expense reimbursement forms, attending training sessions, etc. Investing in technology that more effectively accomplishes these tasks will drastically reduce the administrative time and potential for human error these activities require, while simultaneously appealing to tech-savvy millennials.

Technology, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. Smart manufacturers also need to understand that millennials aren’t content to simply come to work and do their jobs. They want to have a say in what’s happening on the job. Inevitably, they will ask questions and challenge the status quo.

By not only recognizing this tendency but embracing it, manufacturers can take advantage of the energy and innovative instincts millennials routinely display to make the business more productive, particularly in problem areas. This can go a long way toward connecting with millennial employees, engaging them in efforts big and small to improve the way business operates.

But manufacturers can’t stop there. They must also recognize that millennials want to constantly grow. They want to tackle new challenges and new opportunities. As a result, the leadership team must be prepared to give employees increasing responsibilities that they will regard as meaningful and contributing to their own personal growth. Create assignments that will challenge them and play to their individual strengths and areas of interest. Seek their opinions as to how to improve the way a specific job or process is completed, and show a willingness to actually make the changes they recommend. Above all, emphasize how their contribution is making a difference.

Finally, manufacturers should build cross-generational teams to identify areas of improvement whenever possible. Doing so will benefit both millennials (who can build their skills by learning from more experienced team members) and more senior team members (who should be encouraged to leverage the energy, creativity and tech know-how millennials display). It’s essential, however, to recognize that millennials want a mentor, not a boss. They want to feel supported and valued by the company’s leaders. Responding positively to that desire for mentorship will not only increase productivity, but create a stronger tie to the company.  

Bottom line: Enabling millennials and encouraging them to identify and drive business improvements and innovation will make them more productive. Just as important, it will create a relationship that can take advantage of their capacity for change while building a level of loyalty that will have a significant impact on employee growth and retention.

Ivan Seselj is CEO of Promapp Solutions, an industry leading provider of cloud-based process management (BPM) software for creating and managing business processes online. You can contact him at ivan.seselj@promapp.com or follow him at @Ivanseselj. You can visit Promapp at www.promapp.com for more information.

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